Winter is my favorite time of year. Partially because my birthday is in the new year, but mostly because the transition from December to January feels like a much-needed purge. This is when we let go of the old and believe transformation is possible.
At Christmas we dredge up old wounds with family. We think about the new year as a chance to be better. This is a period of resolution, renaissance and rebirth.
In the spirit of this, I want you to think of a person who has hurt you emotionally in the past. A person you have not been able to let go of for whatever reason.
Why do your memories of this still ache, and/or how were things left unresolved? Do you blame them or yourself? Or both?
I am asking you to go where you have refused to go before and to address this person/incident (and yourself) with the most honesty you can muster, even if it hurts.
Don’t specify who this person is or a specific incident, rather describe how they make/made you feel.
Use a minimum of 5 stanzas/paragraphs, OR, alternately, you can use 5 lines.
Doesn’t matter if you use a traditional form, free verse or prose blocks.
Address different questions/aspects in each paragraph/line.
Paragraph 1: Whose fault was it?
Paragraph 2: What were the results of the fallout?
Paragraph 3: Do you still think about them? Be honest.
Paragraph 4: How hard is/was it for you to love again?
Paragraph 5: What would you say to them now?
Does not have to be a romantic relationship. Supplement appropriate adjectives in the paragraph questions.
I could write about this all day, but here is a shortlist of female writers that have influenced me through their individual contemporary/hybrid styles:
1. Maggie Nelson
A mixture of poetry, essay, philosophy, and memoir, Bluets blows both form and genre out of the water.
2. Lidia Yuknavitck
The first book I ever read by Yuknacitch was her memoir, The Chronology of Water, which remains one of my favorite books to date. Her use of language is so precise, so powerful, so poetic, yet perfectly bare-boned and vulnerable. Her latest novel, The Book of Joan, is a modern reimagining of Joan of Arc that takes place on space station. Again, the language is incredible and completely unexpected for dystopian, sci-fi.
3. Roxane Gay
Gay blew up in 2014 with the release of Bad Feminist, a collection of essays that redefine what it means to be a modern feminist. But long before this, her debut came with a collection of 15 stories called Ayiti, “a unique blend of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, all interwoven to represent the Haitian diaspora experience.” Her novel An Untamed State, was released the same year as Bad Feminist. Gay also posts actively on tumblr with thoughts on life, recipes, and more.
4. Claudia Rankine
When Rankine’s lyrical memoir, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, was released in 2004, she completely changed both poetry and CNF. Similarly, her book Citizen pushed this line of hybridity further when it was nominated for the National Book Award in poetry. Some argued that it was a collection of essays, while others saw it as poetic. Still others see it as both, and I am inclined to agree with them.
5. Anne Carson
If you haven’t read The Glass Essay, you need to get on that right now. Carson manages to meld poetry and the personal essay perfectly in this piece as well as The Autobiography of Red. Her poetry is typically prose heavy to begin with and extremely enjoyable to writers of different genres.
6. Carmen Giménez Smith
Crisp autobiographical poetry and a must-read.
7. Octavia Butler
Badass sci-fi daring to go where no one has gone before. “[Butler] defied formulaic sci-fi while exploiting the freedom of the genre to take her usually female and nonwhite characters to places where mainstream fiction would ten to deny them.”—Commonweal
8. Eula Biss
Please read The Pain Scale if you haven’t. She also has a myriad of essay collections that skillfully tackle hard-hitting topics.
9. Lorrie Moore
“Oh, the precarious position of fiction in our world: that over the last several decades the novel has continually been declared dead, and the short story is in constant resurrection, which means half-dead or post-dead or heaven-bound. But one continues writing anyway—as has been said by many—because one must.”—Lorrie Morre
10. Ruth Ellen Kocher
I had the pleasure of studying under this incredible poet whose hybrid work is constantly changing the game. domina Un/blued is a personal favorite.
11. Vanessa Angelica Villerreal
Beast Meridian is one of the most beautiful collections of poems I’ve read in a long time. It includes family photos, potent imagery, and wounding personal experiences to show the erasure and illegalization of Mexican-American bodies in today’s society.
12. Jennifer Tamayo
You Da One is highly experimental and uses pop culture references to explore the wound of American assimilation.
You may or may not be familiar with erasure poetry, but it’s essentially exactly what it sounds like. Taking pre-existing work, you mark out chunks of text to create a new poem. This process can be especially helpful if you’re experiencing writer’s block.
Mary Ruefle has a famous 42-page-erasure poem called A Little White Shadow that she created from Emily Malone Morgan’s Brown & Gross (1889). I believe I read an interview somewhere in which Ruefle claimed one of the main reasons she chose this text is because there are no copyright issues from a text this ancient. So bear that in mind before you spend too much time on this.
A former professor of mine, Ruth Ellen Kocher, took a different approach to erasure in her book domina Un/blued. While in Rome, she wrote tons of poems and later went back and erasured her own work. The results are absolutely breathtaking.
Many poets erasure their own work in the editing process without thinking of it as such. And many poets have difficulty letting words go. But this process is all about whittling down to the most precise language. You’d be surprised what can come out of that.
take a text you’ve either written or a text that you love and mark out chunks to create your own poem
Laura Theobald is one of the many writers incorporating modern technology into their work. Using iOS predictive text, Theobald wrote an entire collection of poems titled THE BEST THING EVER. You too can create an interesting story or prose poem through predictive text. You’ll also get a glimpse into your psyche when you see which words you use most frequently.
20-25 words minimum
start with “I died”
if predictive text repeats the same word(s) too often, hit a random letter for more vocabulary options
Here’s my attempt (I can’t stop laughing):
I died in the past, and it is literally just one of my favorite places. Yeah, that’s what I’m going through. Right after lunch, I’ll be a feeling. Like this, but so far away. I’m going home now. I’ll let y’all be good. I’ll talk tomorrow night. And love with him has no chance. I died in a good mood I guess. I died in the way you told me. I died in the world. Just let me remember that.
Plenty of people have written about the use of New Orleans as a dystopian setting over the last decade, which hits a little too close to home—literally. Yet, I cannot deny that my city does in fact make the perfect backdrop for political commentary. In the context of Hurricane Katrina, this statement makes sense, but does it still hold up?
From a local perspective, I would argue that it does for the following reasons:
1. Unwavering Weather Deathtraps
It’s hard to believe that a little over 12 years ago, Hurricane Katrina left 80% of the city flooded, at least 1,833 dead, and hundreds of thousands homeless—myself included.
While this event destroyed my 15-year-old world, it captivated the rest of the country through the national news circuit as the ultimate disaster porn for months, maybe even years.
The question on everyone’s mind—How could this level of devastation occur in 2005 in one of the most powerful countries in the world?
The images, more reminiscent of a third world country than that of a modern US city, forever shook the country’s self-view. People waiting on their roofs for days with rescue signs, houses upon houses filled with water, stragglers swimming in what was once a street, security footage of looters, the cajun navy out in their personal boats, the 27-mile-long Lake Pontchartrain Bridge in ruins, my childhood theme park (Six Flags New Orleans, formerly named Jazzland) becoming a lake instead of just having one.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to dissociate myself from these images the way the rest of the country did. I distinctly remember the people around me as well as the anchors on TV referring to us IDP’s (Internally Displaced People) as “refugees”—people who by definition have been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.
This semantic discrepancy spoke volumes and reflected the cognitive dissonance between what people were witnessing on television and what they believed possible in their own country.
The use of “refugee” framed the black bodies appearing on millions of white American screens as foreign. The media also fanned fears of looting and crime through exaggeration, bias, and racial stereotypes: Whites borrowed for survival, while blacks doing the same thing stole. But I digress.
Between August 29 and September 17, directly after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, “dystopia” spiked worldwide on Google trends. If you look at this search trend between January 2004 all the way through September 2017, there is no other spike of this magnitude. In fact, when you look at this graph, dystopian YA is just beginning to surpass that spike in terms of popularity. That almost feels wrong, given the wave of Hunger Games, Maze Runners, and Divergents dominating publishing and film.
But if a world-ending event were to occur in America, people already picture it in our backyard thanks to Katrina, the Louisiana Floods of 2016, and even the occasional two-hour thunderstorms.
In 2017, we’ve had the strongest recorded tornado in LA since the 1950s, a biblical thunderstorm (that consequently trapped me in my car for five hours), and, at one point, there were three active hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico simultaneously, which, scared the absolute crap out of me. I’ve never witnessed such a thing in my lifetime, and, frankly, my list of close encounters with supposedly once-in-a-lifetime weather events is much too long for my liking.
To my surprise, New Orleans has resembled Seattle more than a Gulf Coast city this year. With newly formed tropical storms and hurricane upgrades every day, I finally muted my weather alerts before hurricane season ended. I won’t even get into to the daily tornado/waterspout watches I recieved while driving across the longest bridge in the world (not hyperbole) to get to and from work.
All of this is to say, we’re never far off from apocalyptic weather or an ecodisaster down here.
2. Refusal to Put the Past to Rest
Another reason New Orleans serves as a popular dystopian backdrop is because our residents don’t just live in the past, they also glorify it.
Until I left the south, I never realized just how bizarre, let alone common, it is for a classmate to receive a scholarship from the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC). My mind is still boggled by the self-proclaimed American patriots around me who tote the flag of the losing side.
The confederate flag is so prevalent here, you would think it’s the state flag. I may be desensitized to this symbol now, but, as a child, I knew exactly what it meant without any verbal explanation and felt anxious every time I saw it. Children are perceptive enough to notice the commonality between flag-wielders, some of whom’s ancestors never fought in the Civil War.
While the confederate monuments have come down, this continues to be a hot-button issue among residents. The statues are permanently gone and never coming back, but people here refuse to move on, blaming any and every issue from flooding to poor fund management on metal and stone.
Class and racial tensions aren’t going anywhere, which provides a great backdrop for political unrest, injustice, war, primitivism, violence, corruption, and all the things that makeup dystopian works.
Baton Rouge, the state capital located less than an hour way, has the highest wage gap between men and women in the entire country. Baton Rouge and New Orleans also have the highest rates of HIV in the country. With one out of every 55 people in Louisiana is behind bars, we are the prison capital of the world. Oh and don’t forget that we dance in and out of the top 10 murder capitals on a regular basis.
Throw in the fact that the majority of these prisoners are black men performing prison labor, and you can see a new form of slavery that isn’t far off from plantation days. Actually, some of this labor is performed in plantations.
3. Decrepitude and Corruption
A lot of people (aka tourists) find New Orleans’ infrastructure to be “charming.” However, I’m well aware that the abandoned hospital around corner still has flood water from Katrina filling the bottom floor and parking garage. The roads and foundations are sinking faster than we can fix them. Black mold and asbestus run rampant in schools, homes, and public spaces.
Because we rely almost exclusively on tourism, the French Quarter is the only area that keeps up with preservation and maintenance, while the areas populated by local residents continue to show scars from Hurricane Katrina. The job market is almost exclusively service industry for the same reason.
Corruption is also notorious in New Orleans. Show me a politician that hasn’t blatantly embezzled money from taxpayers, and I’ll show you a unicorn. The worst part it though, is that the entire country knows this about us.
Yes, parts of this city are lovely and interesting because of their history, but tourists shouldn’t be the only people in the city who experience upkeep. But, all of this just makes Nola a better candidate for said dystopia.
Bottom line: There are a million reasons to love New Orleans, but this city still reflects past atrocities and what is still broken in modern society. Hurricane Katrina was the catalyst for this view on a national scale. However, the ingredients were there well before the storm and remain here today.
These are things we accept in New Orleans, and maybe that is in fact part of our charm. This is a city full of history, heartache, violence, ghosts, and tragedy. But it is also a place of love and magic, a place where people can express themselves without judgement.
There are things I would like to change, but the reality is that this colonial city is set in her ways. So, for now, you can either take it or leave it or just accept that nothing, including this crime-riddled city, is solely good or bad. Either way, no one in the US knows dystopia better than New Orleanians.
Writer’s block, listless lingua, poetic impotence—whatever you want to call it—I’ve been forcing myself to write through it for years now. After all, one of Hemingway’s most famous works, The Old Man and the Sea, came directly out of writer’s block.
But after years of writing through it, the results—a ton of first chapters, hundreds of unfinished poems, and a slew of half-hearted essays—are less than desirable.
Never in my life have I experienced writer’s block. I was always that ambitious student in the front row who could spin a tale from any assigned prompt, always volunteering to read it out loud at the end of class. So how did I get to this place?
Exhaustion from professional reading, editing, and writing
Writing endlessly through past trauma for creative purposes
Pushing emotions down instead of using them as creative fuel
Only looking at work through the lens of the reader
Writing extensively sans passion/inspiration to beat the block
Hemingway may have been able to write through his soul-numbing creative drought, but I simply couldn’t do it anymore. Somewhere in the middle of grad school, the blank page became my enemy, reading felt like a burden, and I hated everything I managed to put into words.
What I’m talking about here is not your run-of-the-mill writer’s block. If it were, writing prompts, coffee shops, family squabbles, people watching, and a number of other random things would pull you out of it quickly.
I’m talking about something much more sinister. It is recurring exhaustion, disillusionment, existing in a mechanical or automatic state. It is going full-speed into Self-Deprecationlandia without any hope of resurfacing. It is the inability to find inspiration over prolonged periods of time, despite your dedication to “write through it.” It is losing touch with why you became a writer in the first place. No, what I’m talking about is longer and darker than standard writer’s block.
So how do you write through numb periods like this when the act feels on par with vacuuming a staircase or cleaning the toilet?
The simple answer is—you don’t!
When one of my undergraduate professors gave me this advice seven years ago, she changed my whole perception of writing and how it should be done. She said she went through periods of consumption and regurgitation. In other words, she took time to ingest lots and lots of media and mull over her thoughts before entering a long writing phase or working on a book project. This method is both obvious and sacrilegious at the same time.
So often as writers we are told to carve out a practice and stick to that schedule every single day, to write through writer’s block, and to, above all, never stop. In reality, I think this can be damaging to some of us.
At the upper echelons of academia, passion is inadvertently stamped out, while the pressure to publish, contextualize, and evolve reign. Production is never-ending. Some find this challenging and fun; others feel drained. Either way, you keep moving.
This professor’s advice permitted me to take a break from writing. And this professor is the only person ever to do so.
Rethinking Writing Practices
After so many years in this discipline, I no longer see the practice of writing in terms of black and white. Instead, I see it as a natural cycle or fluctuation. There are times when forcing yourself to write is helpful, even healing, and should be done. But that force can also reach a point of killing your passion for the craft altogether.
There is a timing and balance to writing that cannot be forced, which is why we find ourselves writing about childhood trauma decades later. You need enough emotion to power you through the act itself and enough distance to craft that feeling into something worth sharing with the world. You need time to analyze your emotions and the events in your life to fashion art from that.
Some write solely from raw emotion and experience, which many describe as reopening an old wound and letting it bleed. This type of writer also needs time to heal or practice self-care from time to time.
Even creative writing/lit professors take sabbaticals every few years to nourish their minds and spirits. While this suggestion goes against everything we’re taught as writers, I think it is necessary to say aloud. It’s okay if you have nothing to say right now. It will come to you later, and when it does, it will flow out in bursts. It will feel natural. It will not feel like a chore.
Most creatives have multiple interests, skills, and hobbies. Every time I put a pin in writing, I find it helpful to play piano, paint, crochet, draw, record songs using old poems as song lyrics, make gifts for upcoming holidays, take my pooches to the dog park, go hiking or to somewhere I’ve never been, research something I’ve always wanted to know more about, or take up a new hobby altogether. This provides a respite from the blank page while channelling other parts of your creativity, building your confidence back up, and giving you ample inspiration for your current or future projects.
It took three weeks of vacation for me to finally shake the last three years of writer’s block.
Spending time with my family, sleeping in my teenage bedroom, not pounding out copy/edits eight plus hours a day, watching my favorite sci-fi/fantasy films, and reading captivating books for the first time in ages all reminded me of why I do what I do and inspired a novel I truly care about finishing.
Forcing myself to write isn’t so bad—when I have something to say. Ultimately, inspiration and restfulness are paramount to my creativity and maybe to other’s creativity as well. Like medical treatments, writing practices aren’t one-size-fits-all. The most important thing is to listen to yourself and protect that well of creativity with everything you have. Don’t be afraid to experiment and find what’s best for you.
I’ve been reading dystopian YA for as long as I can remember…well, 2008. I used to find such pleasure in these types of books, but lately, I can barely make it through the first few chapters. The Hunger Games, of course, holds a special place in my heart, but I can’t shake the feeling that this niche has run its course.
A few weeks ago, I started The Selection by Kiera Cass. After all of the hype and best-of lists, I could barely contain my excitement when I opened to the first page…and then I began reading. It felt familiar. Too familiar. The book starts with an impoverished, female protagonist explaining the caste system in her world mid-manual labor. Her mother relies way too much on her, and a handsome, hardworking, family-oriented guy is in the picture. It’s at this point in the book that I decide to stop reading.
The next book I picked up is almost identical. Red Queen begins with a young, female protagonist pickpocketing for survival. Hot-guy-friend tension right out of the gate. World-building exposition.
While The Selection‘s cast system is defined by numbers (District 12 anyone?) and Red Queen by colors, it’s impossible to ignore the similarities. To be fair, I haven’t given either of these books a fair chance or read enough of either to know exactly how different they are – but I don’t really care.
The disappointing thing about this genre is how overtly formulaic it is now. In a sea of Twilight (2005), The Hunger Games‘ (2008) felt like a breath of fresh air. I remember thinking, “The writing isn’t all that great, but damn, I haven’t read anything like this before.” Yes, you can draw comparisons to Lord of the Flies, Battle Royal, and so on, but Suzanne Collins took the Twilight love triangle and smashed it to pieces.
Twilight was a particularly disturbing YA phase. While it isn’t a dystopian novel, it is a bleak look at the future of relationships. The female protagonist, Bella, is helpless, in an arguably-abusive relationship, and her biggest life decision is choosing between two guys.
Katniss, on the other hand, is completely self-sufficient, strategic, selfless, brave, and she doesn’t have the luxury of getting lost in her love triangle.
Pretty kick-ass protagonist, right? Not in 2017. Everything I once loved about The Hunger Games is what I now hate about the genre. There are a million Katniss Everdeens in unfair class systems with two hot guys, a crappy mom, and some kind of competition/game/selection to win.
All of this is a far cry from where dystopia started, which begs the question: at what point are these books making real, thoughtful commentary on society? Or are they merely capitalizing on the genre’s popularity and rendering dystopia meaningless?
Dystopia sort of makes sense for young adults. When you’re young, everything feels like the end of the world.
You may have noticed that in every YA novel the parents are either dead, abusive, absent, or flawed to the point that the protagonist must become self-sufficient, which is meant to reflect children’s disillusionment with their parents and the desire to grow up. And while the use of class as a conduit for teen angst is highly questionable, I can understand why teens connect so deeply with dystopia.
Whether you’re feeling a little stagnant or just want to try something new, it’s never too late to discover untapped facets of your city.
1. Swallow your pride
In a place like New Orleans (my city), it’s hard not to get defensive when a tourist shows us something we didn’t already know about. Down here, we really pride ourselves on our ability to recommend the best restaurants, bars and music spots. But, if you really want to learn something new about where you live, you have to let that pride go. Live with the curiosity of an explorer, and don’t shut people down just because they’re not from your city. They just may offer you something life-changing.
2. Take a tour
I used to roll my eyes at the tourists who went on alligator tours, but it’s hard to deny how amazing this experience is once you’ve seen a 12-foot alligator jump six feet in the air and snatch a chunk of raw chicken out of a man’s hand.
I thought I knew everything about the Treme until I took a Segway tour. While I knew all of the facts our docent listed off, I’d never gone “off-roading” in Louis Armstrong Park before. And it was one of the most fun experiences of my life, mostly because of the Segway. Learning how to ride that thing was hard at first, but it was such a unique way to see my city.
3. Change your route
I always notice new murals, restaurants, and popups when I take different routes. Yes, the same routes are comfortable, and probably have less congestion, but when you’re not in a hurry, change it up! You’ll be amazed at what you find.
4. Revisit your favorite childhood spots
You went to the zoo and aquarium a million times as a kid, right? Surely, it hasn’t changed that much? Think again. How old are you now? Believe it or not, you’re all grown up now and the zoo probably isn’t what you remember. More importantly, returning to these places can fill us with a sense of child-like wonder and leave us inspired for weeks.
5. Rent a hotel or bed & breakfast
Our mood can improve just by getting away from regular routines and environments. Find a place in your favorite part of town or an area you don’t know very well. While you’re there, go to an unfamiliar restaurant. Unplug from technology and responsibility over the weekend.
6. Find solace in nature
Nothing makes me feel happier than being on the water – it’s like coming home. The second I feel that salty breeze through my hair, the stress of the work week just melts away. But you don’t have to go on the water to find your happy place or discover a different side to your city. Try exploring local hiking trails and state parks in your area. For me, that means heading into the swamp and hurtling alligators!
For the first time in twelve years, I didn’t wake up thinking about Hurricane Katrina on the anniversary. Not the day of, not the week before, and not for the entire month of August.
Instead, I woke up thinking about my stranded parents in Houston. This is where they settled twelve years ago after we lost everything. Surely this can’t happen here, too? Surely they are more equipped to deal with this level of devastation than New Orleans was in 2005?
The truth is that we cannot outrun disaster. I know this first hand. In my first 3 months of grad school a hundred year flood hit the area, and it was impossible to escape the memories of Hurricane Katrina. If there’s a natural disaster, you can bet that I will be there for some inexplicable reason. I guess it was lucky that I’d planned on driving to Houston the weekend after the storm to watch the LSU game with my dad. My weather misfortune is a long running joke among friends and family.
Still, it’s hard to look at the photos of Houston without remembering the hell of Katrina. And the irony of Hurricane Harvey falling on the anniversary of Katrina isn’t lost on me. Houston took us in, all of us. Plenty of people saw it as a sanctuary and settled there permanently. And as it sits engulfed in water, I can only think about the fact that there is nowhere left to run.
I have lived all over this country only to experience this kind of devastation over and over again. Wherever you are, we are all in this together. However, I do not wish to spin the resilience myth that comes with surviving a hurricane (or flood, tornado, tsunami, earthquake, landslide, or wildfire). That is an individual experience.
As I’ve gotten older and survived more and more once-in-a-lifetime weather events, they’ve become easier to deal with. A few weeks ago, I was stranded in my car during a flash flood with a flat tire when the water suddenly rose without warning.
It is so easy to relapse into trauma or to let my PTSD resurface in these moments. Or that used to be the case anyway. But for the first time, I found myself laughing in the face of danger. Making humorous videos to share with friends and family as the world around me spun out of control like it had so many times before.
I have found a certain kind of peace in accepting what I cannot control.
Earlier today I called my mother to see if she could get out of her neighborhood, which she now can. “I feel bad for cooking and drinking like nothing’s wrong,” she said. My mother, who has worked at Home Depot for 30 years, is weatherproof. She is ready to step up and sheetrock people’s homes, and I love her for that. If anyone understands what Harvey flood victims are going through right now, it is my selfless, half-Cajun mother.
My father was evacuated from his home today and took the only road out of the city all the way to Austin. On the way out, he shared a photo of the Brazos River, which looks muddy and pregnant, ready to burst at any moment.
The battle is not over. The river will crest, and when it does, more devastation will arrive. Even though I should be nestled in a cocoon fashioned from my own anxiety right now, my heart is full witnessing the Cajun navy (rescue volunteers from Louisiana) arrive in Houston with boats – lots of boats – to brave the elements and lend a helping hand.
It is strange to see Houston in a vulnerable position when they’ve always been our refuge. But I guess this is how relationships work. We New Orleanians see ourselves in Houston. We know what lies ahead for them. While we won’t forget Katrina, Harvey’s widespread destruction has it’s own place in history now. And we are ready to help.
Content Specialist | Editor | Poet | Dog Mom | From Nola